I pick up writing my novel again. I remind myself of what I wrote three years ago.

What does stillness have to do with the writing process?

It turns out I own a collection of poems that, until very recently, I ignored. It cost me only fifty cents at a garage sale a few years ago, which is probably the only reason I bought it. I found it again last week while looking for another author whose last name begins with H, and this time I didn’t—couldn’t—ignore the name as my finger moved along the books’ authors. I took the book out—its title is Call Me by My True Names—and I looked at the picture of the author. Then I looked at the poems’ titles in the table of contents, which are divided into two categories: Historical Dimension (his anti-war poetry), and Ultimate Dimension (his spiritual poetry). Here I have owned and never read his, Thich Nhat Hanh’s, poetry, and while it is sad I’ve neglected to comb through this book before, it is good that now I’ve found it. I saved the Historical Dimension for later. Right away I opened up to the poem called “Breathing,” which goes like this:


Breathing in,
I see myself as a flower.
I am the freshness of a dewdrop.
Breathing out,
my eyes have become flowers.
Please look at me.
I am looking
with eyes of love.

Breathing in,
I am a mountain,
Breathing out,
I feel solid.
The waves of emotion
can never carry me away.

Breathing in,
I am still water.
I reflect the sky
Look, I have a full moon
within my heart,
the refreshing moon of the bodhisattva.
Breathing out,
I offer the perfect reflection
of my mirror-mind.

Breathing in,
I have become space
without boundaries.
I have no plans left.
I have no luggage.
Breathing out,
I am the moon
that is sailing through the sky of utmost emptiness.
I am freedom.

For the past two weeks I have been writing my novella, The Voice and Arms of God, at a pace that I haven’t experienced since I began it almost two years ago. More accurately, I have been writing at a pace that I haven’t experienced since I was a smoker, when I first entered Pitt’s MFA program, two-and-a-half years ago. When I smoked, I could sit for hours with a piece of writing, and, eventually, I’d have to be pulled away by some other obligation, whether it was sleep (Alli said, “Carlos, come to bed—it’s 4am.”) or food, or class, and so on. When I smoked, I sat with my own writing, became frustrated, walked to the balcony or front porch, smoked a cigarette or two or three, then came back to write. It was my habit, my ritual, and it kept me in front of the computer screen, revising, adding new sentences, finding new ways to say old things—for a long, long time.

Then I quit smoking. And when I quit smoking, there were, of course, benefits: I was able to play basketball with my friends without vomiting; I could take the dogs on walks that they could really appreciate, rather than around the block and hope they didn’t notice; my body, when I came to bed or kissed Alli or walked into a room full of nonsmokers, did not smell offensive anymore, something that I denied embarrassed me; I was regaining my health, and, thankfully, my son does not have to grow up around a smoker. But, for all those benefits, I forgot how to write.

I began writing my little novella in a fit of a great idea. I had the first two chapters finished in a little while, but since then, mostly it has been a great idea without much substance—because I did not know how to sit, how to sit still, how to focus whatever energy I had into my work. It was embarrassing to be a part of a respected MFA program and try to keep it a secret that I had all but forgotten how to create. When I was smoking I had a synthetic connection to stillness, a habit, an addiction, that helped me replicate (for moments at a time, at least) the stillness my soul required to be creative, something—however unhealthy, both in body and mind—I lost when I quit.

And now, in part because graduation is breathing down my neck, and in great part because I am relearning stillness, I am again able to write. I read Hanh’s poem now before I enter into writing—or, I read it for myself ‘just because’—and then I read it again. I listen to the experience of union with the universe, sure, yes, that is very nice, but a reading on that level might as well be the message in a fortune cookie, or appear in the Karate Kid. So, in addition to that, I also use this poem as a way to enter into his version of stillness, that in the midst of stillness he is everything (which, I admit, acknowledges that first, fortune-cookie reading, but then goes deeper), since from his breath—in, out, in, out—comes the world. And so I hope the same will happen to me; in fact, I have learned to expect it. I quiet myself, I close the door to my home office, I tell Alli that I can’t be bothered until I come back out, and I breathe. I practice mere breath, and I expect the world to come forth—in words and images on the page. I understand that it may be a mistake to breathe as a means to create, and I do not mean to make this mistake, but I can’t help to be inspired by this connection in Hanh’s poem between breath and the universe, and that the form of his experience is itself artistic creation, and that the world—all of it: flower, mountain, water, moon, sky, freedom—are in his breath. Then let them be in mine. Let me use this universe in me to create a universe on the page. Let me use what unwholesome and wholesome thoughts pass through me as a means to create characters whose thoughts are also unwholesome and wholesome. Let me become Ecuador. Let me become my father. Let me become myself truly, and let me find the words to make it beautiful.

4 thoughts on “I pick up writing my novel again. I remind myself of what I wrote three years ago.

  1. Carlos, this is great. (I’m reading this post even as I’m struggling to create today as well!) Thanks for reminding me to check out Thich Nhat Hanh, and for reminding me that stillness is the prerequisite for mindful creation.

  2. Delgado!

    I absolutely love reading what you write, but today I fell in love withThich Nhat Hanh’s, ‘Breathing’. As I was reading it, I found my breaths mirroring the poem. When Hanh said to breathe in, I did; breathe out, I did, too. Sometimes, I would find my lungs full before they were supposed to be; I was breathing in too quickly. By the end of the poem, my breathing was slow and regular; I had found stillness. I am very happy that you can find stillness, too, with this poem, and that cigarettes are no longer your door into creativity. :)


  3. Delgado, thank you for your thoughts, your words, and your story. I’m curious, would Thich Nhat Hanh happen to be Vietnamese?

  4. Crystal clear and intriguing post. Thank you for taking your time to explain. I loved it.

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